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Goopi, Bagha and free speech

  • A taste-altering Indian animation film is coming to theatres soon
  • Shilpa Ranade’s ‘Goopi Gawaiyaa Bagha Bajaiyaa’ is based on the famous children’s tale by Upendrakishore 

Shilpa Ranade’s ‘Goopi Gawaiyaa Bagha Bajaiyaa’ reinvents a classic tale.
Shilpa Ranade’s ‘Goopi Gawaiyaa Bagha Bajaiyaa’ reinvents a classic tale.

Rarely is the climactic resolution of a story as elating as in Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury’s Bengali comic fantasy Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne. Goopi and Bagha, atonal, scraggly musicians who sing about the futility of war and the pleasures of eating and speaking freely, make the mute citizens of a once-autocratic kingdom speak again, and end up as fairy-tale heroes by marrying beautiful princesses. It’s an enchanting fable about the power of the artist to change the world.

Shilpa Ranade’s animation film based on the book is finally coming to theatres. Ray Chowdhury’s book has a rich history of visual adaptation, first by the author’s grandson, Satyajit Ray (1969), as a rollicking black and white marvel memorable for its music, orchestrated visual schemes and lead performances by Rabi Ghosh and Tapen Chatterjee. Poet-director Gulzar wrote a book based on it that Ranade, an artist and film-maker who leads the Media lab at Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai, illustrated.

After that project, she decided to make her own version, an animation film based on the story. With the Children’s Film Society of India (CSFI) as producer and Soumitra Ranade as writer, the film was ready in 2013. Goopi Gawaiyaa Bagha Bajaiyaa premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2014 and has travelled to film festivals across the world. One of the musicians on the project was Narayan Parshuram, co-founder of Karadi Tales, a children’s entertainment company, who later bought the rights of the film, and is now releasing it in on around 150 screens across India in partnership with Luminosity Pictures.

Every frame in the filmis a burst of deeply-hued colours; Ranade’s drawings are unlike the rounded figures reminiscent of the earliest styles of Disney that we are used to seeing in most Indian animation films. Her Goopi and Bagha, the kings they want to save, the blazing king of ghosts who becomes their angel, the princesses they marry and the villain they have to defeat, have bulbous eyes, protruding lips and oblong shapes. Fiery lights, atmospheric nooks and crannies created by light and shadow, and huge, crowded plates of food populate the frames. Ranade directs the film at a staccato, sedate pace, far from the fast-paced, action-heavy Hollywood animation films excessively dependent on technology that we and our children are used to watching. Its signature is a deep-rooted Indianness.

The characters, Goopi and Bagha, are abandoned in a forest after Goopi’s off-key songs and Bagha’s tone-deaf drumming annoy everyone in their village, including the resident multicoloured rooster and the king, a gaseous glutton. The ghost of the forest, who wears a fire cape, loves their music and endows them with the gift of delicious, abundant food, appreciative rapture from listeners and the power to travel where they want to. The duo’s mission is to unite two brothers who are kings, all the while spreading the message that giving in to sensory pleasures and speaking your mind is a better alternative to war. They succeed roaringly—king becomes citizen, citizen becomes king.

Animation for children and about children is a distinction many writers and directors consciously make in their minds, but this distinction blurs in Goopi Gawaiyaa Bagha Bajaiyaa. Ranade says her art was inspired by ethnic marionettes, and is drawn from Indian folk art forms. The themes are uncannily relevant to the time it is being released in, when free speech and war are on the mind of every civil society across large swathes of the world. She says the reactions from children outside India surprised her: “At the first screening at Toronto, in front of a largely under-17 audience, I got many questions. I thought the language and the Indianness will be a barrier, but the children comprehended all of it."

Parshuram says since the CFSI does not have a distribution model, it took years to get the distribution rights from it. “We were sure we wanted a big screen release because it was made with the big screen in mind—the details are such that the experience is complete only when it unfolds on the big screen," he says.

Goopi Gawaiyaa Bagha Bajaiyaa releases in theatres on 1 March.

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